In recent years, almost every itinerary between Europe and Asia will stop somewhere in the Middle East, either in Doha (Qatar), Muscat (Oman), Abu Dhabi, or Dubai (both in the UAE). This stable, well-to-do enclave of cities/countries on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula has capitalized on its geographic location more than once. First for the previously thought to be endless oil reserves, and now for being right smack between Europe and Asia and the perfect place for planes to refuel and break up long-haul trips.
I can’t count how many times I’ve stopped in this part of the Middle East on my way to Asia. Usually, I just chalk it off as a 2 hour break to stretch my legs, stroll around to see people from every part of the planet concentrated in one place, and of course, relieve myself.
But, this time, after my growing interest in the shining city in the middle of the desert, and some pretty heavy promotion from the Dubai Tourism Board, I said, why not?
So, en route from Bangkok to Spain for a wedding, I opted to make a 48 hour “stayover” in Dubai, probably the most internationally known emirate of the United Arab Emirates, or UAE. An Emirate is essentially like a state in a larger country (i.e. Pennsylvania in the USA). There are seven Emirates that comprise the UAE, each with a ruling family, and one family that leads two.
I found a reasonably priced flight on Emirates Airways which I’ve never flown on before. I have to stay, it was probably my best experience on a plane. I also got to fly on a Airbus A380 for the first time, the plane that’s double decker the entire length. I’ve never boarded a plane so fast either, as this mammoth has 3 separate gangways from the airport gate; one heading upstairs for first and business class, and two for coach, one heading to the front of the plane and one to the back. The flight attendants were nice, the seats large and comfortable, and the A380 had the largest (and best working) entertainment system I’ve ever enjoyed on a plane which was full of quality movies and TV shows. There was even Wi-Fi for almost the entire trip and you can get on briefly for free too, boom.
Six short hours after I stepped onto the plane, I was already flying over the barren Arabian peninsula from what the flight tracker map said was Oman. We glided in gently across the desert as I started to see slightly more scrub vegetation and signs of civilization, and within minutes, I began to see palatial mansions with verdant gardens, large apartment complexes, and quite an impressive sight, The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world (which is unbelievably tall at 828 meters or 2716 feet!).
After we taxied in, I slipped off the plane, and within 5 minutes, was already having my passport stamped by the smiley and cute immigration officer, she even said I look more handsome now than my passport photo, which could go either way given I was 19 in that pic…
The process was fast and easy and I didn’t even have to fill out some monotonous customs form asking if I was bringing in any livestock or flora (I guess they don’t expect anything could survive in the middle of the desert for more than a few hours anyways).
Dubai is really encouraging people to stay over for a few days rather than just transiting through, and from what I saw, even if you had just a 5 or 6 hour layover, it would be worth it to pop out into the city and head back to the airport which is easily accessible by the metro, reasonably priced and regulated taxis, or even Uber (free Wi-Fi in the airport too so you can request one).
I visited Dubai during Ramadan which I was initially a bit unnerved about as I imagined dying of dehydration and hunger before making it to my first sundown. If you don’t know, Ramadan is the holy month for Muslims in which they fast, including liquids, from sunup to sundown every day for an entire month.
Given the fact that the population of Dubai is comprised of a whopping 75% foreigners, you can most definitely find food to eat and drink, although the polite thing to do is either go to the bathroom to do it (drink at least), or just not do it in public which I think is reasonable. You can even find plenty of restaurants in the malls, airport, etc. where they set up a partition that you can just go behind to eat. Your hotel will function as normal (room service), they just won’t serve alcohol until after 8 o’clock usually (yes, you can drink alcohol in Dubai, and they even have some wild clubs).
My first stop after the airport was the Conrad Dubai, a glimmering tower in the heart of the city, and what I would have to say after my trip there is that it’s in an ideal location; connected to the metro and a short drive in any direction to malls, the attractions, beach, airport, and the desert.
The Conrad was sexy enough to put me up in the Executive Suite. I was basically ready to handcuff myself to a chair at checkout time. It was a smart room and everything could be controlled by either normal switches or the bedside master remote. The views were epic, Wi-Fi strong, super quiet (couldn’t hear even one call to prayer) and the gym as legit as your local fitness club. The pool area was unfortunately under maintenance when I was visiting, but it looked spacious and lux. I had dinner at Cave, one of the restaurants that the Conrad Dubai offers and the food was good and the wine selection even better. The breakfast buffet was extensive and the perfect way to start the day as well.
Before I came to Dubai, there were two things I knew I definitely wanted to do. One was to go see the Burj Khalifa, and the other was to take a desert Safari tour, which I managed to organize both into one day.
My first stop was the Burj Khalifa, just a 5 minute taxi ride from the Conrad Dubai. You can basically see it anywhere in Dubai as it’s literally twice as tall as the next tallest building (and there are plenty of very tall buildings as well). To think humans could build such a thing is truly a testament to modern engineering. There aren’t too many things that I plan to visit these days that blow my mind, the Burj Khalifa was one of them.
I hopped out of my taxi at the Dubai Mall and headed to the basement floor which is where the entrance is located for the Burj Khalifa observation decks. I paid the entrance fee to visit the 2nd highest observation deck (floor 125) which cost about $35 US. To go up another 25 floors, you’re looking at about $125 which I don’t find really reasonable, so I passed.
The elevator is the fastest in the world and it whisked me up to the 124th floor (stairs to get to the 125th) in one minute, wowza. The first views when you step off the elevator are awe-inspiring, it’s like being on a plane! I made my way around the 360 degree observation deck, took my photos, and then headed back down to planet earth.
I zipped back to my hotel for a quick lunch and shortly after, I waited downstairs in the lobby for a few minutes until a brand new all white Toyota Landcruiser rolled up and the window rolled down with a “Jeremy?”, I dabbed and hopped in.
When it comes to desert tours in Dubai, there is no shortage of options. All are priced similarly, but I chose to go with Desert Safari Dubai Tours, which had great customer service and I was able to set up the whole thing via Facebook messenger on their page.
We first drove about 40 minutes east out of the city which slowly fades away until rolling red dunes dominate the landscape. We left around 4 pm so the sun began to grow large in the summer sky as we pulled off the road and the driver began to deflate the tires. I asked of course, “why are you doing that?”, he responded, “Traction!”.
The next thing I knew, he was gunning it straight into the sands as I reached up and grabbed the handle above my door. It was at this point that I happen to notice the roll cage welded into the inside of the car. We blasted around the dunes for 15 minutes, curving banks, plowing through loose sands and shooting down hills, it was awesome. Apparently this activity is known as “dune bashing”. We stopped at the top of one of the largest dunes and stepped out for amazing views of the almost alien landscape.
After our foray in the sands, we headed to a camel farm where I got to feed a few some sort of grass, they loved it, I on the other hand was pretty petrified as I’ve seen this video…
It went well, and both parties seemed happy enough with the experience.
Next, we headed down a sand-swept road for 15 more minutes until we pulled off and met up with another guy from the Desert Safari Dubai team who had a sand board out for me to try surfing down a dune. I’ve been wake boarding a good amount in recent years, so I felt decently confident, and thankfully I didn’t eat shi…sand.
When I climbed back up to the top of the dune, a guy came out of nowhere, and with a falcon on his shoulder. Falconry is actually a popular…past time? in the UAE. If you wonder what in the world falconry is, basically it’s a form of hunting in which a handler will send off their falcon into the desert to retrieve all sorts of small animals (snakes, lizards, small cats, etc).
Apparently, people like to bet on it as well with certain terms like how fast their falcon will come back with something, what there falcon will bring back, etc. It was pretty cool to hold one, even though its razor-sharp beak and talons 6 inches away from my eyeballs was a bit frightening, thankfully he left me the way I am.
After getting to hold the falcon, a couple small ATVs pulled up, one of which was apparently for me. A guide led me as we whipped around the dunes for 10 minutes, it was a lot of fun.
By now, around 7:30 PM, the sun was really starting to set and a small breeze picked up. The dunes began to glow a deep orange as I looked around for miles in all directions and thought to myself, “this is really amazing”.
We had one more activity before the BBQ dinner at the desert camp, riding camels. I’m not much into riding large animals these days. Anyways, I hopped on and took a quick stroll around and then hopped back off and headed into the desert camp for the BBQ.
There was a large buffet waiting for me when I entered the camp as well as a bunch of other people who came in different SUVs on separate tours with Desert Safari Dubai. The spread was very extensive and quite delicious. Lots of different salads, hummus, baba ganoush, grilled meats, deserts, etc. Apparently when it’s not Ramadan, they even have ice cold beers waiting for you (which would have been amazing). After dinner, there is a cool dancing show. During Ramadan, it’s just the guys, but any other time, they have belly dancing. You can also have a free shisha set up for you and get an authentic Henna tattoo done as well (I passed on the Henna).
After the dance around 8 PM, the team said a big thank you to everyone and I was dropped back off at my hotel. All in all, for the 250 AED price tag per person ($68 USD as of today), I can’t really imagine much more bang for your buck on anything, anywhere. The dinner alone could have cost that much in the states, and Dubai ain’t the cheapest place in the world either. All in all, I would highly recommend a desert safari Dubai tour if you’re in town.
In conclusion, I had a very nice time in Dubai for two days, even if it was Ramadan. I’d definitely build Dubai into your itinerary if you’re transiting through on an across-the-world trip. It really helped with jet lag as well as it’s only 3 hours time difference from Asia, and 3 hours time difference from western/central Europe.